Filled with do-gooder intentions that would do Oprah proud, Shaquille O’Neal attacks the problem of childhood obesity in this peculiar variation on the British series “Unfit Kids.” The NBA star takes an active role in the show, but he’s surrounded by an an-noying cast of experts, and the focus veers all over the place — from the central “challenge” of helping six morbidly obese kids lose weight to O’Neal’s campaign for mandatory phys ed in schools. So come on, kids, sit your big butts down and watch your peers try to lose weight!
Not surprisingly, the Florida youths come from a diverse set of backgrounds but have their considerable poundage in common, and the tears flow freely as they struggle with even the most modest exercise regimens in the early going.
At that point, unfortunately, the show veers into staginess, straining credulity as O’Neal rings up local hospitals cold to find a childhood obesity specialist (that wouldn’t have been worked out in advance?), then throwing a fit and recruiting a badass personal trainer when he discovers the kids aren’t working out as vigorously as promised. In these moments, the show appears either woefully underproduced or trans-parently bogus.
Similarly, members of “Shaq’s Team” — the Miami Heat all-star’s trainer and doctor Carlon Colker, trainer Tarik Tyler and nutritionist Joy Bauer — each seem to be auditioning for their own TLC series or featured spot on “The Biggest Loser.” As for Shaq, great, he loves kids, but he acts sanctimoniously like he’s the first person to discover that overweight children is an issue and, strictly from a TV perspective, has a bad habit of mumbling, which makes listening to his mutterings a bit of a chore.
For all of that, there is merit in the subject matter, even if the closeup on the kids’ pain — and that of their parents, who are alternately ex-press guilty feelings and defensiveness — borders on the invasive and exploitive at times. It’s too bad RDF (the company responsible for another kid-incorporating ABC franchise, “Wife Swap”) and the program’s eight executive producers couldn’t resist the usual non-scripted TV bells and whistles in ratcheting up the drama or, barring that, didn’t rein in the hoops star’s impulse to transform these personal stories into a self-aggrandizing crusade.
As a practical matter, “Shaq’s Big Challenge” doesn’t offer much advice for obese kids (or adults, for that matter) lacking the benefit of private trainers, nutritionists and doctors, though to its credit, the show quickly dismisses surgery or drugs as options.
And at least in one respect, watching the kids view O’Neal with wide-eyed awe, the producers have got the right group of guinea pigs: Who else but a worshipful child, after all, would take advice so solemnly from a guy who plays basketball for a living and still can’t hit a damn free throw?